On a cold afternoon in early January, the pianist Ursula Oppens was making an album at Brooklyn College.
At 79, Oppens is a little fragile, tiny and stooped. But when she sat down at the piano — shoes off, Diet Coke on the floor — out came playing of power and technical aplomb.
Most of the time, at least. Oppens was setting down the first recording of an early, unpublished sonata by the uncompromising modernist Charles Wuorinen, and, like much of Wuorinen’s music, it was treacherously thorny. She had been studying it, on and off, for a year, but it was still slow going.
“I played a couple of correct notes,” she said after an early take, “but not many.”
That kind of modesty has been mixed in with mastery throughout Oppens’s long, distinguished career. With crystalline lucidity, warm sensitivity and utter authority, she has guided generations of listeners through the seductive complexities of Wuorinen and Elliott Carter, Anthony Davis and Conlon Nancarrow, Frederic Rzewski and Joan Tower, and on and on. She is “the queen of contemporary music,” said Tania León, one of the many composers who have written for her over the last 60 years.
Born on Feb. 2, 1944, Oppens will officially celebrate her 80th birthday at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan on Saturday. But — again, that modesty — this isn’t exactly an Ursula Oppens recital. She will be joined by seven pianist colleagues in a concert focused less on her than on the music she has helped bring into the world: eight pieces from her dizzying catalog.
“Most of these pieces have at least entered a small repertory,” she said in an interview at her apartment on the Upper West Side. “That’s what one hopes for. I don’t have children, but with children you nurture them, then hope they’ll go away and have their own lives. That’s what I feel very proud of, and happy about, with this music.”
For those who know Oppens, this self-effacement comes as no surprise. Judith Sherman, the producer of the Wuorinen album, who has worked with her for decades, said: “I don’t recall her ever talking about herself or her career. If she talks about herself, it’s, ‘Am I failing the composer?’”
And that she very rarely does. “There’s the old compliment,” the composer Tobias Picker said, “‘So-and-so played a better piece than the one I wrote.’ That’s a compliment one could give Ursula. Her phrasing, her technique, her musicality — she’s a great artist.”
Oppens grew up in New York City, the child of Jewish parents who fled Europe in the late 1930s. Both were accomplished musicians; her mother, a serious pedagogue, was her first piano teacher. “When she was pregnant,” Oppens said, “she had a friend come to practice the ‘Hammerklavier’” — the classic Beethoven sonata — “so I would hear it while I was still in the womb.”
She came to associate her parents with old-school technique and the canonical repertory, which she has always played alongside the new. It was much later that she learned that her mother had taken a class with Webern, the great modernist, and that her father had been a member of the influential International Society for Contemporary Music.
Oppens believes they may have associated modern styles with Europe and the war, and so didn’t want to share such things with her. “I don’t remember any encouragement toward new music,” she said.
But she was curious from early on. Her freshman year at Radcliffe College, Pierre Boulez came to campus for lectures and a concert, and she was hooked. She played in a student performance of Stravinsky’s “Les Noces”; she met the composer John Harbison, a few years older, and began to play his music; she learned Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin and piano and the Bartok sonatas.
From the beginning, modernism and its descendants entranced Oppens. “I’ve always been intrigued by the strangeness of it,” she said. “That sort of entices me. They’re adventures.”
Back in New York to study at the Juilliard School in the mid-1960s, she got to know Wuorinen, an important ally when she and other young musicians formed Speculum Musicae in 1971. Mixing 20th-century standards with pieces by both established and rising composers, the ensemble was an immediate success, buoyed by Carter’s advocacy.
Oppens’s solo career flourished too as she won competitions and an Avery Fisher Career Grant. For the country’s bicentennial, she commissioned Rzewski’s labyrinthine set of variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” which has become as close to a contemporary classic as there is in the solo piano repertory.
She still performs that sprawling work, including on a program of what she calls “my standards,” which places the Rzewski alongside Carter’s mischievous “Two Diversions” (1999) and his brooding, unsettled “Night Fantasies” (1980).
Few pianists have mastered Carter’s dauntingly quicksilver idiom like she has. Steven Beck, a former student of Oppens’s who will play “Two Diversions” at Merkin, first knew of her from her recording of Carter’s Piano Concerto.
“She’s so attuned to the drama of it,” Beck said in an interview. “The different characters of Carter’s music conversing together, sometimes arguing, even at war. She would say things like, ‘In this part, the two hands should fight against each other; you should feel that tension of them not agreeing.’ She humanized the technical things that Carter does.”
Oppens became known for her association with Carter, Wuorinen and other composers who were emblems of the so-called uptown modernist establishment centered in university music departments, as opposed to the less institutionalized “downtown” of John Cage, the Minimalists and others. But even in the days when that distinction meant something, she was open-minded.
“One of my first CDs had ‘Night Fantasies’ and also John Adams’s ‘Phrygian Gates,’” she said. “For most of my life it’s been a multiplicity of styles.”
Picker said that Oppens “was one of the only ‘uptown’ new music musicians who was open to ‘downtown’ music,” adding that she had premiered a piece by the Minimalist composer Tom Johnson. “It was not the kind of thing we were used to.”
Her abilities at nearly 80 were tested by the Wuorinen recording, and the long period of preparation for it. “The eyesight goes, the fingers,” she said. “The retention. It used to be that I got memory after playing something two or three times; now it’s after 20 times.”
But at least one commission, a piano quintet by the 89-year-old avant-gardist Christian Wolff, is still pending. And while Oppens has made some compromises with age — she has retired the “Hammerklavier,” and made peace with never learning Ravel’s challenging “Gaspard de la Nuit” — she has no intention of retiring.
“I have very bad hand-eye coordination,” she said, “so I can’t play golf or tennis. But the keyboard stays the same; it doesn’t move. So I’ll teach and play as long as I can still do it. Every minute that I have energy, I practice.”